Ice storm hammers Mid-Coast

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BRUNSWICK — Last week’s ice storm caused widespread power outages that left many Mid-Coast residents in the dark for several days while town officials, emergency agencies and Central Maine Power Co. scrambled to return the area to normalcy.
The storm drew many comparisons to the Ice Storm of 1998, creating more than 250,000 power outages in its immediate aftermath and forcing Gov. John Baldacci to seek a federal emergency declaration. CMP’s Brunswick service area was among the hardest hit, recording more than 41,000 outages at 5 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 12.
CMP restored power to most of the region by early Monday morning. However, Harpswell residents, all of whom at one point were in the dark, were among the last to get back electricity.
Harpswell Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said about 2,500 residents were still without power Monday morning. That included the West Harpswell School, which was forced to take a snow day.
CMP reported 2,370 outages in the Brunswick service area at noon on Monday, and power was retored to most of Harpswell by Tuesday morning.
Officials in Brunswick said the town at one point was 75 percent without electricity, affecting 160 roads. While downtown was largely spared, Fire Chief Clark Labbe said east side of Maine Street lost power for several hours on Friday.
The hardest region hit, Labbe said, was the west end of town. Most residents there didn’t regain power until Sunday.
Labbe said CMP primarily focused on tree clearing and cleanup on Friday and early Saturday. Power restoration didn’t begin until after that.
On Saturday the duration of the outage combined with bone-chilling temperatures. While officials worried about residents without secondary heat sources, most area residents braved the cold.
According to Labbe, only a handful of people utilized the Red Cross shelter at Mt. Ararat High School in Topsham. The shelter closed Monday.
Brunswick Town Manager Don Gerrish estimated damages at $40,000.
Brunswick Police Cmdr. Marc Hagan said the dispatch center received 97 storm-related calls, mostly for downed trees and lines and tripped alarms. He said emergency units responded to 71 of those calls.
On Saturday, the town deployed emergency officers and volunteers from the Community Emergency Response Team to visit residents still without power and advise them about generator use, safety precautions and to assess the overall welfare of residents. Hagan estimated that the team visited 500 Brunswick homes.
Hagan said the dispatch center was inundated with calls asking about CMP’s progress. “Sometimes people think we know more than we do,” he said.
As is usually the case during extreme weather events, Harpswell was one of the last communities to see full power restoration. While residents may have grown accustomed to the annoyance, town and emergency officials and residents found the loss of phone service particularly troubling.
The latter has been an intermittent problem in the past, leading officials to worry that residents in distress would be unable to make emergency-911 calls.
Cundy’s Harbor Fire Chief Ben Wallace said that when the town loses electricity, batteries powering phone lines in a series of service huts typically take over. However, Wallace said, the batteries operate for only a few hours unless connected to generators.
During this storm, officials said, FairPoint Communications was slow to bring in generators.
But FairPoint spokesman Jeff Nevins said the problem isn’t unique to Harpswell. He added that FairPoint is similar to CMP in that it follows an emergency plan to prioritize backup generator service.
In addition, Nevins said, FairPoint has created redundancies in its landline phone service that allows customers to reach an emergency dispatch center. Even during instances where calls bypass local emergency outlets, Nevins said customers can eventually reach them by being passed along through regional dispatch offices like the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department or the Maine State Police.
But some officials are concerned that being passed along through dispatch centers will create delays in life-threatening situations. For that reason, Wallace said, residents are encouraged to call Harpswell’s old dispatch number, 729-8000.
CMP, FairPoint and town officials have scheduled a Dec. 22 meeting to discuss the problem.
Although the storm did not strike Bath as hard as the 1998 storm, Fire and Rescue Chief Steve Hinds on Tuesday said his workers “were just as busy” this time around
The northern section of Bath was hardest hit, Hinds said, as well as the south end from the Hyde School on High Street south into Phippsburg. Both are primarily residential areas.
About 50 streets lost power on Friday, Hinds said, a total that declined to about 25 by Sunday afternoon. From that evening and into early Monday morning power was restored to all but a couple of roads, with the remainder addressed later that day.
The department had every piece of equipment on the road at the height of the storm, Hinds said, adding that his crew also performed many welfare checks on the community’s elderly residents.
“I cannot stress enough the need for folks to be extremely careful during these storms,” Hinds said, “with generators, heating appliances, touching of lines, just stay inside until things calm down.”
William Shuttleworth, superintendent of Regional School Unit 1, said all of the district’s schools were closed on Friday but were back open Monday.
One stumbling block, though, was the Fisher-Mitchell Elementary School in Bath, where electricity was not restored until Monday at about 4 a.m. Classes there were still able to convene that day.
“We had to move all of the food out of the kitchen freezers and refrigerators, we lost our milk, but overall nothing else was serious,” he said on Tuesday. “We survived pretty well.”
There were no shelters open in Bath, Hinds said, noting that “the folks that we needed to assist went to Topsham.”
In Topsham, the American Red Cross Mid Coast Chapter opened shelters at Mt. Ararat High School, Great Salt Bay Elementary School in Damariscotta and Boothbay Region High School, according to Executive Director Connie Jones.
Usage at Mt Ararat was “very light,” Jones said. “Friday night we had three people … on Saturday we had two … and then we closed on Sunday afternoon at 5.”
One 81-year-old man from the Cook’s Corner area came in late Friday night after being without power for 24 hours and said “I just can’t take it anymore,” Jones recalled.
The Red Cross offered meals, sleeping arrangements and showers. About 15 people throughout the weekend came in for a shower or to get water, but did not spend the night, she said.
“What was unique about this storm, unlike the ice storm of ’98, was that the power outages were very scattered,” Jones said. “A street here, a street there. So I think that people turned to their neighbors and family members who did have power, and in January of ’98 (the outage) was so widespread, there was no one to go to, so our shelter counts for that storm were much, much higher.”
School Administrative District 75 Superintendent Mike Wilhelm said on Tuesday that all of his schools were closed Friday, while the West Harpswell School remained closed Monday without power before reopening the next day.
“We knew because of the storm that we were gonna get busy,” Topsham Fire and Rescue Chief Ken Brillant said, “so we just kind of geared up and went that way with it, just like everyone around us.”
Power line-related incidents, caused largely by falling or sagging tree limbs, comprised most of Topsham’s fire calls on Friday.
Mike Labbe, Topsham’s Emergency Medical Services and Emergency Management Agency director, said rescue calls were minimal.
“We were very fortunate there … nobody was getting hurt or sick or anything,” he said. “Power-wise … it was similar to the ice storm of ’98, it’s just that the overall coverage was not complete like that … instead of 100 percent of the town being out of power, it was about 65, 75 percent.”
Labbe said Topsham started out with a list of 92 streets without power, down to about 50 on Sunday, 12 to 14 on Monday, a few that night and none by Tuesday. The Cathance Road area on the east side of town was one of the hardest hit by the storm, he said.
Target, in the Topsham Fair Mall complex, lost power on Friday for about 7 1/2 hours beginning shortly after 8:30 a.m., according to Robert Todte, executive of the logistics area for that Target store.
“We were actually open for business,” he said. “We were running on generator power, which operates our register area and keeps the lights on throughout the building, so we were open to the public. A lot of the guests were really shocked that we were open.”
The storm took a larger toll on Target’s grocery department, forcing the store to discard many of the cooler and frozen food items. “The generators didn’t control those cooler-freezer areas,” Todte said.
“Stuff like this happen,” he said.

Alex Lear contributed to this report. Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net.

 

m-icestorm1-121908.JPGBath City Truck Driver Bernie Gordon sets up barricades along flooded Commercial Street last Friday afternoon. “They sent me down to open up the catch basins,” he said, ” but with the tide being so high — there’s no place for it to drain. So, I’m setting up barricades instead.”m-icestorm2-121908.JPGMichael Cunha, 15, of Bath spreads sand along the sidewalk next to his home on Friday afternoon after getting cut loose from school.m-icestorm3-121908.jpgCentral Maine Power Co. workers were busy untangling trees and power lines thoughout southern and Mid-Coast Maine in the aftermath of the ice storm.m-icestorm4-121908.jpgIcy beauty belies the electrical disruptions of last week’s ice storm. This is just off Route 201.

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